Air Travel Tips for Autistic Teens

As our Autistic teens move towards adulthood, we need to be constantly thinking about how we get them to a place of independence.

I’m sitting on a plane as I write this, traveling with my family to visit some relatives over Spring Break.  It’s been an interesting trip as we’ve navigated the airport with our son’s future independence in mind.

Here are some tips on things we did to help our teen be as independent as possible as we traveled today:

Tip #1:  Choosing the Right Seat on the Plane

When we booked our trip, we asked our son where he wanted to sit.  Did he want to sit next to us?  Did he want to sit on his own?  He’s a typical teenager in terms of not wanting to hang out with his parents. He chose to sit alone.  So we chose a seat in front of the row we were in.

With this vantage point, I was able to see how he did interacting with the other people in his row, communicating his drink and food order with the flight crew, and if he kept to himself and didn’t bother other people.  He could simply look back if he needed help.  I purposely ignored those looks a few times just to see if he could manage on his own.  And of course he did.

Tip #2: Being Responsible for his own Luggage, ID, and Plane Ticket

We packed the night before.  We sat down and created a basic checklist,

We are going to be gone 6 days so you need 6 shirts, 6 pairs of underwear, … razor, toothbrush,…

I asked my son if he wanted me to check that he had everything he needed.  He told me it was fine so I left it alone.  If he forgets something, he’ll learn something.  And a forgotten toothbrush can easily be purchased on the other side.

At the airport, he had his passport and needed to keep track of his ticket.  We had a connecting flight so there were 2 tickets to keep track of.  It pleased me to watch him holding that ticket as if it were a million dollar lottery ticket.  He was being responsible and he knew he could not lose it.  (He set his passport down when picking up his backpack and would have likely forgotten it.  A gentle queue helped him remember and that was the only almost-miss he had today.)

Tip #3: Coaching on Navigating the Airport

After getting our tickets, we showed our son how to read the flight number and the gate number.  Then we told him we would follow him and that he needed to read the signs in the airport to get us to the gate.

He reached a couple of crossroads where he needed help.  We explained how to read the signs and with just a tiny explanation, he was on his way again.

My son really does NOT like to engage in conversation with me or anyone else.  But he was engaged in these conversations!  I could see he really wanted to learn.  We told him that we were teaching him these things so he could someday take a plane somewhere all by himself.  He wants that very badly so he was motivated.

When boarding the plane, we showed him how to read the row numbers and seat letter and then let him lead the way to find his own seat.  He struggled on the first flight but figured it out on the second one.

When we reached our first destination, we showed him how to look up the flight number and destination city on his ticket and then find it on the electronic board to verify which gate we needed to go to next.  He figured it out and led us to our gate, which happened to be the same one we arrived at.

I’m lucky because when my son is happy, it is communicated through his face and his whole body.  When he’s in charge, he stands taller, smiles brighter.  I could see that in him today.

I worry about him being out there on his own but I know that’s where he needs to be.  Watching him take direction and independently navigate the airport with me following behind gives me confidence.  He’s pushing me.  I’m pushing him.  And the confidence in both of us builds.  I don’t know how long it will take us to get there, but we are definitely taking steps forward.  Forward progress is all you can ask for no matter how fast or slow it is.

Air Travel Tips for Autistic Kids

You’re on a flight, a child is crying 2 rows back.  The child behind you is restless, kicking your chair.  If you’ve ever been the parent handling one of these children, you know how tough it is.  When your child has Autism, it can feel unmanageable.  I have my own nightmare story but before I tell that story, let me share some tips for how I managed this when my Autistic son was younger.

Tip 1: Set Expectations BEFORE you head to the airport

Using social stories, a calendar or a checklist, tell your child all of the things they are going to experience, step by step.  At least with my son, I found when he knew what to expect, he transitioned from moment to moment a lot better.  And this makes sense when you think about this in terms of transitions.  Many of our kids struggle with transitions.  If they know all of the different things they will need to transition between, they will do better.

A sample story or checklist:

At 6am, we are going to get up so we are ready to leave at 7am.  A person you have never met is going to pick us up in a car you’ve never driven in before and that person will take us to the airport.  Next, we’ll go to a place where we will give them our suitcases so they can put them on the plane for us.  Next, we will go through security.  We will need to stand in line and then show them a picture of ourselves and show them our plane tickets.  Next, we’ll need to take off our shoes and our coats and put our backpacks into a machine.  Next we’ll need to stand inside the machine and stay very still while it takes our picture.  After that, we’ll get our backpacks and put our shoes and coats back on.  Before we go to our plane, if we have all been very good in security, we’ll go to Starbucks to get a snack.  When we get on the plane, we’ll need to sit in our seats and put on seatbelts.  When the plane is ready to take off, we will not be able to use our iPads until the pilot tells us it is ok.  After that, we can watch a movie.  When it is time to land, we will need to put the iPad away again.  After we land, we’ll wait in line to get off the plane and then we will got to a place where we can get our suitcases.  After that, we get to see Grandma!

Tip #2: Use a checklist

This is a looooong social story.  By putting this into a checklist format, as you successfully get through each milestone. You can check off each item and then your child can see what is next.  Notice there is a snack, a movie and getting to see Grandma in this list.  There are fun milestones to look forward to.

Here’s a sample of a list from Cozi.  You can show your child this list from your phone and make a game of checking things off the list as you go.


Tip #3: Watch Youtube videos before the trip

For those more complicated items like getting scanned at the security checkpoint, there are youtube videos that are great to show to your child in advance so they can visualize everything they will go through so it’s less terrifying when they get there.


Tip #4: Insert Rewards into Your Journey

Getting a cookie at Starbucks if they behave through security.  Watching a movie on the plane.  A Gummy Bear for every successful checkpoint on the list.  Whatever it takes.  In my son’s early years, we had to focus on each step of the way and celebrate each success.  Over time, we needed less rewards inserted into it and he became a pro.

Tip #5: Stay Calm

Preparation is half the battle.  For the rest, we need to stay calm and execute on our plan.  I’m convinced that our kids pick up on our energy.  If we are anxious, they will be anxious.  And when things go sideways, if we look out of control, that is when other people judge us.  I found that even when my son was in a complete meltdown, if I remained calm and demonstrated to other people that I was doing my best to get the situation under control, I felt more empathy than judgement (or maybe I saw what I wanted to see but whatever works).  This is easier said than done but a good thing to keep in mind when things don’t go according to plan.

What was my horror story?

I didn’t have a plan like the one I described.  My son had flown before and did pretty well.  We would often fly from Seattle, WA to San Jose, CA and it was typically a direct flight.  On this flight, my husband needed to fly out a day in advance so I was solo.  That was the first new variable.  And we had a connecting flight through Portland, OR.

I’m sure I was more anxious than usual.  Having 2 parents working together is always easier than one.  My son was doing great until we got on the second plane.  He just didn’t understand.  He clearly thought we had arrived in San Jose and when we were in a new airport and Nana and Pap Pap weren’t waiting on the other side, things went downhill fast.  As we boarded the second flight, he was crying.  As we sat down and I tried to get him to buckle his seatbelt, he started kicking and screaming.  I had Gummy Bears.  I had toys.  I had books.  Nothing was working.

I finally got the kicking and screaming to stop but he was still crying.  The well intentioned flight crew were trying to help but they were causing more harm than good.  Every time they would come over to offer juice or a cookie or anything, it would upset him again.  Finally, a crew member asked him if he wanted to watch a movie, asking if we had an iPad.

This was a problem.  I couldn’t let us “break this rule” of no electronics before we reach 10,000 feet and then not expect to have a problem on the next flight.  Our kids are smart.  They learn what they can get away with and I couldn’t let my son throw a tantrum and then get his iPad as a reward. At this point, I calmly stood up which forced the crew member to step back.  I quietly and calmly said,

You need to back off.  I’m sorry.  My son has Autism and every time you try to help us, you are making things worse.  Just leave us alone and he will eventually quiet down.

The crew member was NOT pleased at all but she stepped away.  My son calmed down.  The flight took off.  The movie was a hit and we survived the flight.

If I had set my son’s expectations better, we likely would have avoided this.  Lesson learned.  And I hope my story helps another parent down the line.